Growing Ideas: Ladies’ fingers
Grow this beautiful hibiscus plant in a heated greenhouse to produce a delicious and unusual vegetable for your exotic dishes.
Okra (Hibiscus esculentus) is known by an assortment- of names—gumbo, go-bbo, gombo, bamya, or the more poetic ladies’ fingers or brides’ fingers— and they all describe these long, finger-shaped edible pods which are a common ingredient in African, Asian and West Indian dishes.
Tropical in origin, okra is closely related to the cotton plant. It is very attractive, growing to a height of 1.8 m (6’) in its native tropics, and about 1.2 m (4’) in a greenhouse. The leaves are large, often 30 cm (1’) across, with three to five tooth-edged lobes. The flowers are yellow and have the same dark red blotches at the base of each petal as the ornamental hibiscus species. The edible okra pods are long, grooved, dark green and spear-shaped, and range in size from 7.5-20 cm (3-8”).
For most temperate areas, okra is a crop for the greenhouse, as it must have summer temperatures of 24-27°C (75-80°F). Plan to grow about five plants, and sow the seed in a good seedor singly in peat pots in late winter or early spring. The time from sowing to germination will be 7-25 days, depending on the temperature, which must be between 15 and 36°C (60 and 97°F). When the are large enough to handle, transplant them singly into 8-10 cm (3-½ – 4”) pots, and when they have filled these pots with roots, transplant them either into a greenhouse plot, or singly into 25-30 cm (10-12”) pots. Use a good potting compost for all stages. Before transplanting, insert tall supporting stakes.
Okra does not require a great deal of care during the growing period. Keep the plants well watered, but not over moist or the stems may rot and be invaded with a fungus disease. Be sure to remove immediately anythat appear. Unfortunately, okra can be troubled by several greenhouse . If red spider mite is likely to be a problem in your greenhouse, keep it well damped and ventilated, as the mites thrive in hot, dry conditions. Spray the plants daily with derris, or every seven to ten days with malathion if spider mite has appeared. Also keep a watch out for slugs, and for mildew which may appear on the leaves if conditions have gone to the other extreme and are too moist.
Your pods are ready for picking when they are very young and tender, and the seeds inside are still soft, usually beginning eight to ten weeks after sowing in sub-tropical conditions, otherwise about sixteen weeks. Never allow the pods to grow too large, or they will be hard, stringy and thoroughly unpalatable when cooked. Harvest with care so that the roots of the plant are not disturbed; it is better to snip the pods off with scissors, rather than pulling them. If picked regularly, a succession of new, immature pods can be harvested over a period of several weeks. When the plants have finished bearing new pods, pull them up and put them on the compost heap.
In an area where the summers are long and hot, it is possible to grow okra outdoors, although it is a good idea to start the plants off under glass. Sow in peat pots in spring, and keep at a temperature of 15-27°C (60-80°F). The site chosen should be open, very sunny, and sheltered from high winds. A rich, loamyis ideal; enrich it with an application of well-rotted garden compost if necessary.
Transplant the young plants when they have just filled their peat pots with roots, spacing them 38-60 cm (15-24”) apart. Protect with cloches if necessary, particularly at night if the weather is cool. Keep the plants well watered, and hoe very carefully to remove all weeds, particularly during the early stages of growth. Support the growing plants with canes or poles to keep them upright. Harvesting for okra grown outdoors is exactly the same as for greenhouse-grown plants.
You can use fresh, tender, young okra in a variety of ways. Steam or fry whole pods and serve them as a vegetable, or slice the pods and use them to thicken casseroles, soups or stews. Okra is also an excellent vegetable for home canning; the unusual flavour combines particularly well with tomatoes.